Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spine-waisted Ant

This pretty little ant is a Spine-waisted ant (Aphaenogaster tennesseensis) in the family Formicidae. Some refer to this ant as an Orange-Spotted Ant, which I rather like, but I think Copper-Bottom is a much better common name, after all just look at that abdomen.

They are associated with woodlands and can be found inside decaying wood, or rotting logs. The ants pictured here were found inside a rotting log in our timber. These ants will herd aphids leafhoppers and milk them for honeydew. Honeydew is a favorite sweet treat among a lot of ants and many different species will be found guarding them. This is a beneficial relationship to both species. The ants get their favored honeydew and the aphids gain protection from would-be predators. 

In this photo the worker is carrying a larvae to safety after the colony was disturbed (by me...oopsie). The number one priority of the workers is to expand the nest sight, and to care for the offspring of the queen. These ants are like many other ants in that they forage for food, and will carry bits and pieces of insects, seeds and other foods back to the colony to feed on. These ants are quite strong (as all ants are) and are capable of carrying much larger prey species than they themselves are.

These ants are also reported to be parasitic on other ants in their genus...such as A. rudis or A. rudis picea.

 The following additional information on this species was provided by Missouri's Ant Expert James Trager...."James, thank you for sharing your vast knowledge." 

This is a common eastern US species of forests and woodlands, and also occurs in yards, parks and urban areas with large trees. It nests in dead trees, in rotting heartwood of living trees, and also in fallen logs. It is rare in prairie, but sometimes is found in decomposed wood in prairie groves or in isolated old trees. A. tennesseensis is a known temporary social parasite of perhaps all of the A. rudis-texana group species. The queen is small, shiny, stout-spined, and thick-cuticled, with long, stout propodeal spines, presumably all helping her gain entry to a host colony. See the pictures on this page and note the similar size but difference in build of the queen and workers: http://www.antweb.org/description.do?rank=species&name=tennesseensis&genus=aphaenogaster&project=illinoisants.
The food of this ant is mainly small invertebrates that inhabit dead wood in which it lives, and they are not as eager in the pursuit of sweets as many other ants. They mainly gather honeydew off the ground and leaf litter, rather than directly from the bugs, or drink from fallen fruit. 

 This particular species might be one of the prettiest ants I've ever seen in terms of color. With winter struggling to lift its chilly bonds, there is very little to see in terms of insect life. Everything is still tucked away safe and warm and out of sight. I am resorted to tearing open logs and peeking under rocks for anything living and moving. Oh the desperation of a winter-bound entomologist!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Water Scavenger Beetle

I read this quote online about these beetles and had to chuckle at its truthfulness:  "This is a water beetle. It is the hardest object in the world to pick up with tweezers. The second hardest is Mount Everest." I wish I could find out who first said it, but there was no name associated with the quote.
Water scavenger beetles are in the family Hydrophilidae. These beetles are predominately aquatic and will be found near ponds, streams, lakes and other small bodies of water. We have a small wetland on our property and there are hundreds of these beetles present there as well other aquatic insects. This little wetland is one of my favorite areas to visit on our farm, there is always something interesting to see. As larvae they live under the surface of the water and prey on other insects. As adults they vary their diet between vegetation and other insects as well scavenging on decaying animal and plant matter.These beetles are very difficult to identify to species, and with over 225 species in 34 genera it is easy to see why. Many of them look very similar and closer inspection of their underside, antennae and leg hairs is required for a more accurate identification. 

These beetles have very shiny elytra; you can even see your reflection in their wings.....(first photo shows my own reflection as I photographed this particular beetle). They range in size from 1/4 of an inch up to 1 1/2 inches or more. Not all beetles in this family are aquatic, some are terrestrial and will live under rich damp soil, or in dung or decaying leaf litter. The beetles associated with land typically are herbivores and feed on vegetation exclusively.  

We typically find insects at our porch lights, or at the family picnic, or while walking through our gardens, but many of us don't associate insects with water. Many insects in fact begin their lives in water and live near water their whole lives. Exploring ponds, streams and lakes or any other temporary body of water often yields some interesting finds. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Many of you may not know that I also have another blog called Explore Missouri. I have seriously neglected it over the past year and hope to get back on track in posting interesting information about Missouri's natural resources. If you have time and are so inclined take a few minutes to visit EXPLORE MISSOURI. The newest update is all about our very own White-tail deer

Thursday, March 24, 2011


This pretty little black and orange insect is a Sawfly (Dolerus unicolor). Sawflies are not flies at all, but are related to wasps and bees. Even though they are closely related to stinging insects, they cannot sting and are harmless to humans. They get their name "sawfly" from the saw-like ovipositor that the female has, which she uses to deposit eggs inside the stems of plants. This particular species gets its name from the all black male. In the spring these insects are often the first to appear on warm days. I found this one floating on a dead leaf inside one of our cattle tanks. I rescued it and let it dry out. After shaking its wings a few times, it flew off for safer areas.
(Sawfly, shaking her wings to dry them out)

The larvae of sawflies look very much like caterpillars, in fact I have often mistaken them for caterpillars, only to learn via bugguide.net or other resource that I was wrong. The following are some examples of sawfly larvae. Each species of sawfly is usually host specific and will be found on its own particular food choice.

(Found on Elderberry Bush)

(Found on Poison Ivy)

(Found on grasses)

(Found on Elm Tree)

As you can see the diversity of these larva is incredible, and I just love finding them and photographing them. You can also see how very much they look like caterpillars. One key difference Caterpillars can have up to five pairs of abdominal prolegs, but never have more than five pairs. Sawfly larvae always have six or more pairs of abdominal prolegs.

Sawfly Larvae

 Here is a couple of diagrams to help you ID your caterpillar or sawfly larvae.

I can hardly wait until the weather finally warms up and stays warm so I can get outside and look for these wonderfully unique insects.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Black Carpenter Ant

This very large ant is a queen carpenter ant (Camponotus pennsylvanicus) in the family formicidae. They are one of the most commonly seen ants in my area and possibly easiest to identify. They are listed as a pest species because of their habit of turning up where they are not wanted, such as our homes. Moisture is a huge attractant, they tunnel into moisture damaged wood and can cause structural damage to homes, and other buildings. To keep them away from these structures, make sure water drains  away from your home and buildings. Do not leave boards lying on the ground, as this draws moisture and may attract the ants. In the wild they are beneficial in breaking down rotting wood into organic matter that adds nutrients back into the soil. You will find them in decaying logs, and trees (where this queen was photographed). The workers come in many sizes, some can be quite large. While they do not sting, they can give a pretty good bite, then to make matters worse they may spray formic acid in the wound for good measure. These ants are fiercely territorial  and will defend their colony from other ants or other invaders. 

While they live in wood, they cannot digest the cellulose that is in wood. They chew into wood only to make their tunnels and excavate their home. These ants are omnivores and will eat most anything including animal matter, fruit and plant juices, dead insects, syrup, honey, sugar, fruit, grease, meat, and a wide variety of other substances. A favorite is the honeydew secreted by aphids and other tiny insects. They will forage up to 100 yards away from the colony.

In late spring winged individuals may make an appearance. These are young males and females called alates. They are leaving the colony to seek mates and to start a colony of their own. As soon as the females are mated the males all die and the females will chose a nesting site to begin her colony then her wings will drop off. She has been mated for life and her sole purpose is to lay eggs for the rest of her life. She will begin by laying 15 or so eggs, they will hatch in about 24 days, she will feed them a liquid diet that consists of  her own stored fat reserves and wing muscles. 

Once these larvae have matured they will take over the care of future offspring of the queen, as well as cleaning the nesting site and searching for food. They will also guard the colony, queen and their siblings. Later in the season "major" and "minor" workers are created, these will be highly variable in size and have different responsibilities in regard to the colony. Some are the foragers that gather food, and others remain in the colony to expand it and care for the offspring. If the colony is disturbed the ants will carry the larvae and pupae to safety. They must be tended to or they will perish. In about 5 years the colony may contain up to 3,000 individuals. In the fall alates will be created, but they will not swarm until the following spring, then the cycle will start all over again. In some cases workers may leave the colony taking larvae and pupae with them and create a "satellite" colony away from the original colony. This is one other way they divide and expand besides swarming. 

With the return of spring upon us it is very common to find these ants in our homes, especially in bathrooms and kitchens where they are looking for water as well as food. Typically they will be found at night as they are nocturnal by nature. How do we control them? Prevention goes a long way, as mentioned above, remove lumber, firewood or anything else that is stacked near your home to discourage them from showing up to begin with. Make sure you repair any damaged wood on your home, do not let wood window frames, siding, railings, porches and other features of your house decay to the point that it will attract these ants. Repair cracks in foundations to keep them from entering your house that way. Make sure you do not have leaky outdoor faucets or any other outdoor water source. If you already have an infestation, you can try bait traps. Insecticide sprays rarely work well anyway, as the ants may just move elsewhere inside your home, until the residue is gone from the spray then they return. Additionally sprays can be harmful to us to inhale as well as to pets, especially pet birds. Baits on the other hand seem to be more effective and much safer to use. Regardless of the method you may decide to use to control them, please read all labels and follow the directions carefully.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Master Hunters----Crab Spiders

This little brown spider is a Ground Crab Spider. This photo was taken last September, and I watched as this spider sneaked up behind the fly, slowly creeping unseen by the fly. The fly was busy cleaning his face and body using his front legs and saliva to wipe any filth off of himself that may have accumulated there. Little did he know he was about to meet his demise. With rapid movement the spider had captured the fly in the blink of an eye.

This is a Flower crab spider, that was also feeding on a fly. I came across this one already feasting, so I missed out on the actual hunting tactics of this particular spider.

Another flower crab spider, this time feeding on a silver spotted skipper butterfly. This flower crab spider and the one in the previous photograph are the same species Misumenoides formosipes and also go by the common name of white-banded crab spider.

They may also take on this lovely pink and white coloration to blend in with milkweed blossoms and other pinkish colored blooms. This species of spider is one of the most versatile in its ability to change color according to the plants they are frequenting. This makes them masters of camouflage, which gives them an added advantage while hunting for their insect prey. 

As you can see by this photo the males look different than the females and they are much smaller, in fact almost comically smaller. She looks like she is carrying him piggy-back instead of mating. (James Trager confirmed she is indeed carrying him piggy back and they are not mating. Apparently they are just hanging out together. Rather it is because they have already mated, or intend to is unknown, and he claims this is unusual behavior among spiders).This arrangement must work, because you will see it throughout the spider world.....males are almost always much smaller than the females.

Crab spiders are one of my favorite spiders, they are easy to find, they come in a multitude of colors, they are fun to watch with their crab-like movements and they do not bite when handled. Sometime in April they will begin appearing in the flowers and will be miniature versions of their parents, so small in fact that they are nearly impossible to see without looking closely. They grow rapidly over the summer and reach their adult size by August.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Zombie Ants

This sounds like something out of a Dean Koontz novel, or perhaps something you would see in classic horror flick from the 1960s. Since the insects have not appeared on the home front as of yet I decided to search the web for interesting bug related articles and share them with everyone.....at least until I can get out and get some interesting photos of my own.

Four New Species of Zombie Ant Fungi Discovered in Brazilian Rainforest

ScienceDaily (Mar. 3, 2011) — Four new Brazilian species in the genus Ophiocordyceps have been published in the online journal PLoS ONE. The fungi, named by Dr. Harry Evans and Dr. David Hughes, belong to a group of "zombifying" fungi that infect ants and then manipulate their behavior, eventually killing the ants after securing a prime location for spore dispersal.

These results appear in a paper by Evans et al. entitled Hidden Diversity Behind the Zombie-Ant Fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis: Four New Species Described from Carpenter Ants in Minas Gerais, Brazil. This paper is the first to validly publish new fungal names in an online-only journal while still complying with the rules and recommendations of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN).

Beyond this important milestone, the paper is noteworthy for the attention it draws to undiscovered, complex, biological interactions in threatened habitats. The four new species all come from the Atlantic Rainforest of Brazil which is the most heavily degraded biodiversity hotspot on the planet. Ninety-two percent of its original coverage is gone.

 a) Original plate from the 1865 Selecta Fungorum Carpologia of the Tulasne brothers [4], illustrating the holotype of Ophiocordyceps (Torrubia) unilateralis and said to be on the leaf-cutting ant, Atta cephalotes; b) Detail from plate showing the distinctive pronotal plate of Camponotus sericeiventris, as well as a side view of the host which is clearly a carpenter ant and not a leaf-cutter; compare with c) Live worker of C. sericeiventris showing the spines on the pronotal plate (arrow). (Credit: Harry C. Evans et al. PLoS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017024)

The effect of biodiversity loss on community structure is well known. What researchers don't know is how parasites, such as these zombie-inducing fungi, cope with fragmentation. Here the authors show that each of the four species is highly specialized on one ant species and has a suite of adaptations and spore types to ensure infection. The life-cycle of these fungi that infect, manipulate and kill ants before growing spore producing stalks from their heads is remarkably complicated. The present work establishes the identification tools to move forward and ask how forest fragmentation affects such disease dynamics.

Story Source:
The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by Public Library of Science, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.

Journal Reference:
  1. Harry C. Evans, Simon L. Elliot, David P. Hughes. Hidden Diversity Behind the Zombie-Ant Fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis: Four New Species Described from Carpenter Ants in Minas Gerais, Brazil. PLoS ONE, 2011; 6 (3): e17024 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017024

Friday, March 11, 2011

Scientists Unravel the Mysterious Mechanics of Spider Silk

(Credit: iStockphoto/Emil Jacobsen)
Spiders spin silk, which is remarkably strong and stretchy, to use in webs and to suspend themselves. "Silk fibers exhibit astonishing mechanical properties. They have an ultimate strength comparable to steel, toughness greater than Kevlar and a density less than cotton or nylon," explains senior study author Dr. Frauke Gräter from the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies in Germany. "Because silk fibers continue to outperform their artificial counterparts in terms of toughness, many studies have tried to understand the mechanical characteristics of these extraordinary natural fibers."

Scientists know that spider silk fibers consist of two types of building blocks, soft amorphous and strong crystalline components. Dr. Gräter's group wanted to develop a better understanding of the mechanical properties of spider silk fibers and implemented a multi-scale "bottom-up" computational approach that started at the level of the atoms that make up the amorphous and crystalline subunits and dissected the contributions of these building blocks. The group used both molecular simulations for studying individual and coupled subunits and finite element simulations for a comprehensive fiber model.

The researchers discovered that the soft amorphous subunits are responsible for the elasticity of silk and also help with the distribution of stress. The maximal toughness of silk requires a specific amount of crystalline subunits and is dependent on the way that these subunits are distributed in the fiber. Different structural architectures of the fiber subunits were tested for optimal mechanical performance. "We determined that a serial arrangement of the crystalline and amorphous subunits in discs outperformed a random or parallel arrangement, suggesting a new structural model for silk," says Dr. Gräter. Taken together, the findings provide a clearer understanding of the mechanical nature of spider silk fibers and may be useful for design of artificial silk fibers.

Story Source:
The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by Cell Press, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.
Murat Cetinkaya, Senbo Xiao, Bernd Markert, Wolfram Stacklies, Frauke Gräter. Silk Fiber Mechanics from Multiscale Force Distribution Analysis. Biophysical Journal, Volume 100, Issue 5, 1298-1305, 2 March 2011 DOI: 10.1016/j.bpj.2010.12.3712

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Those wonderful bumble bees

 I ran across this article on the internet, and thought I would share it. Insects never cease to amaze me! Joey and I are getting ready to venture into the world of beekeeping. Joey put our first hive box together last week and we pick up our first bees April 2nd. I will take pics when we get our bees and place them in their new home. This article is about Bumble Bees another one of our awesome pollinators. This proves just how intelligent they really are.


Bees Solve Complex Problems Faster Than Supercomputers

Bees_experiments_flowersIn a new study, researchers report that bumblebees were able to figure out the most efficient routes among several computer-controlled "flowers," quickly solving a complex problem that even stumps supercomputers. We already know bees are pretty good at facial recognition, and researchers have shown they can also be effective air-quality monitors.
Bumblebees can solve the classic "traveling salesman" problem, which keeps supercomputers busy for days. They learn to fly the shortest possible route between flowers even if they find the flowers in a different order, according to a new British study.
The traveling salesman problem is a  problem in computer science; it involves finding the shortest possible route between cities, visiting each city only once. Bees are the first animals to figure this out, according to Queen Mary University of London researchers.
Bees need lots of energy to fly, so they seek the most efficient route among networks of hundreds of flowers using angles of sunlight, which helps them find their way home, researchers say. To do this, their tiny brains must pack a powerful memory.
To test bee problem-solving, researchers Lars Chittka and Mathieu Lihoreau tested bees’ response to computer-controlled artificial flowers. They wanted to see whether the bees would go after the flowers in the order in which they were discovered, or if they would figure out the shortest route among all the flowers even as new ones were added. The bees explored the locations of the flowers and quickly figured out the shortest paths among them, according to a Queen Mary news release.
This is no small feat, especially considering the tiny size of bee brains. When it comes to certain types of intelligence, size apparently does not matter.
Earlier this year, researchers showed that bees recognize individual faces because they can make out the relative patterns that make up a face. The new research further suggests bees are highly sophisticated problem solvers, and that better understanding of their brains could improve our understanding of network problems like traffic flows, supply chains and epidemiology.
The research will be published this week in the journal The American Naturalist.
Casey Kazan via Queen Mary University of London

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Chaco Golden-Knee Tarantula

This past Sunday was the exotic reptile show in Overland Park, KS. They have this reptile show every three months and invite exotic reptile breeders from all over the region. I attend whenever possible and generally come away from there with some unique critter. I prefer to buy animals from reputable breeders who know all about the species they are rearing and selling. Buying from places like Petco and Petsmart is an iffy business. They may or may not be purchasing their animals from licensed and reputable breeders, the employees they hire know very little about the creatures they are selling and can provide very little information to common questions. Many of the employees are terrified of snakes, tarantulas and lizards and are reluctant to handle them or remove them from cages. I purchased a Chilean rose-haired tarantula from Petco 3 months ago and had to remove it from the cage myself because the employee was too terrified to do it himself. Often times the animals are not cared for properly and are fed the wrong diet. If owning a tarantula or spider is something you think you might like to do, then I recommend turning to a breeder that is experienced and can answer any questions you may have.

At the show on Sunday  I bought a tarantula that I have wanted to own for a long time now. It is a Chaco Golden Knee (Grammostola pulchripes).They were formerly listed as (Grammostola aureostriata).This is a large species of tarantula and may reach legspans up to 8 inches or more. The one I purchased is 6 inches in diameter and beautifully colored.

  This species is often recommended for first time tarantula owners because of their friendly, docile temperament. They are large in size and make quite an impression and are not known to bite. When placed in a cage they typically remain in the open and easy to view, rather than hiding like many other species of tarantulas do. I was so excited to finally have the opportunity to own one of these magnificent spiders that I couldn't keep my hands off it.

Now I realize a tarantula is not everyone's idea of the perfect pet and for many years I would have been in agreement. My fear of spiders was legendary and it hasn't been too long that I overcame my fear of spiders and was able to recognize their beneficial qualities and beauty, now I am hooked. 

Golden-Knee tarantulas are gorgeous with light colored hairs all over their bodies and beautiful golden colored lines on their legs, especially near their knees. It is these golden lines that they get their common name from. They feed on crickets, superworms, roaches and pinkie mice. One draw back to this species is their cost, they are relatively expensive. Generally they are in the range of $150, but I was able to score this one for $100. Of course I considered this a great buy, whereas my husband thought I needed my head examined for paying that much for a spider!
This species is terrestrial and originates from South America. As young spiders they spend the daylight hours in underground burrows as they age they prefer a life above ground. This species has a large appetite and grows rapidly. Even though this species rarely bites, it is reported to be extremely painful if they do. If trying your hand at breeding tarantulas, this is a good species to start with. They breed easily and produce up to 800 young with each mating. However the female can be and often is aggressive towards the male. She will attack and try to kill her mate. This tendency is typical of most spiders, and with any luck the male will escape.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

False Death's Head Cockroach

I am featuring another cockroach that is not native to Missouri, mostly because there is nothing moving on the home front due to cold temperatures. This one is called the Discoid Cockroach (Blaberis descoidalis), they are also referred to as the False Death's Head Cockroach.

This species resembles the true Death's Head Cockroach, but lacks the tell-tale skull-like marking on the back of the head. This species is larger and breeds more readily in captivity than Death's Head Cockroach.
I've had my colony for 3 years and they have bred exponentially and I feed the excess to my bearded dragons on occasion as a treat. Discoid Cockroaches cannot climb vertical surfaces such as glass aquariums and therefore can be kept in aquariums without lids. They do not fly even though they have wings and can reach lengths up to 3 inches, making them quite large for a cockroach. When my first specimens were sold to me I was told they were deaths head cockroachs and believed them to be so for the past 3 years, it wasn't until tonight that I began investigating and discovered the truth. Apparently 20 years ago someone in the insect pet trade mistakenly referred to this species as the Death's Head and the name stuck.

Tonight when I was feeding my colony I discovered one that was shedding its skin. Even though I've had these roaches for years I've never witnessed this behavior until now.

All insects shed their skin as they grow. Each time they shed it is called an instar and most insects must go through at least 5 instars before they reach adult size. When they shed their skin they are very vulnerable because their skin is wet, flimsy and they are unable to move quickly They will also be much lighter in color, often white or yellowish. It may take several hours for their skin to dry out and to darken.  You can see by these images that it is completely white as it crawls out of its previous dark shell.

There is very little odor associated with this species. In fact crickets kept in captivity smell 100 times worse than this species. They are easy to take care of, they require only a protein based food like cat food, dog food or monkey chow. Left over fruit and vegetables are a favorite food as well. Fresh water supplied in a shallow dish and egg cartons for them to climb on and you are good to go. They do not bite or sting, and unlike cockroaches that invade houses, apartment complexes and other human dwellings they do not spread disease.

Cockroaches have long been a favorite of mine, especially these larger species. With over 4,000 species worldwide there is no shortage of interesting specimens to study and appreciate.

(Here is a close-up of the cockroaches mouth parts.)